Technology set to redesign the future of food as agriculture moves towards net zero
On the east coast of Tasmania, the frigid waters and green landscape seem a world away from the blistering heat and red dirt of Western Australia’s Pilbara.
– Australia’s farming industry has committed to reaching carbon neutrality by 2050
– Agriculture accounts for about 13 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions
– Protein demand is tipped to rise 74 per cent by 2050 as the global population heads towards 10 billion
But the two regions, on opposite corners of the Australian continent, are being brought together in surprising ways.
Scientists have found that a red seaweed known as asparagopsis, native to Tasmania, can cut the methane emissions from cows by up to 98 per cent when added to their diets.
And in the Pilbara, as in many other parts of the country where livestock are farmed, producers are lining up to use it.
“I don’t think it’s the silver bullet,” said Sea Forest CEO Sam Elsom, whose company is trying to commercialise the production of asparagopsis.
In the din of the political debate about climate policy in Australia, farming bodies including Meat and Livestock Australia and the National Farmers’ Federation have stolen a march on the Commonwealth by committing to net zero targets.
And producers have taken the cue, embracing new technologies and practices in a bid to cut their emissions while seizing on the commercial opportunities that greener farming can offer.
Meat — but not as you know it
One initiative drawing interest and investment from the likes of Seek founder Paul Bassat and tech billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes doesn’t involve the slaughter of any animals at all.
Variously known as cultured meat, lab meat and cellular meat, these products are created from animal cells in a laboratory.
Although the industry is tiny — cultured meat was only served in a restaurant for the first time last year — there are forecasts it could take a 10 per cent share of the $US1.4 trillion ($1.8 billion) meat industry by 2030.
By 2040, this could rise to 35 per cent, overtaking plant-based meat substitutes in the process, according to consultants AT Kearney.
Australian companies are trying to get in on the act.
Vow, a Sydney-based start-up, has received support from deep-pocketed investors to develop its cell-based meat products, while Brisbane company Heuros is pursuing a similar strategy.
Lab meat potential ‘massive’
Heuros chief executive Nick Beaumont said the environmental benefits of cellular farming were potentially massive.
Dr Beaumont said cultured meat could help feed a growing and increasingly rich global population, while relieving pressure on resources such as arable land and water supplies.
He said there were also much lower risks of bacterial contamination in the production of cell-based meat because of its controlled nature.
However, Dr Beaumont said the technology wasn’t without its challenges, which included the need to win over a potentially sceptical public and gain regulatory approval.
Also, he said that although cell-based farming was less water intensive than traditional practices, it still required significant amounts of water.
And he said a crucial goal for Heuros was breaking the technology’s reliance on a growth serum derived from blood collected from pregnant cows at slaughter.
Ultimately, though, Dr Beaumont said consumers would have the final say and, on that score, he was confident.
“I think you’ll be struck by how similar they are [conventional and cell-based meat],” Dr Beaumont said.
“We are talking about producing meat, just producing it in a different way.
“They’ll have to be packaged slightly differently with the information on how they’ve been produced so consumers can make an informed choice.
Making cows eco-friendly
By far the biggest source of emissions from agriculture in Australia is livestock such as cows and sheep, which release methane in the form of burps and farts as a result of their digestive process.
Sea Forest’s Mr Elsom said these emissions made up about three-quarters of agriculture’s overall contribution, or 10 per cent of Australia’s total emissions profile.
Mr Elsom said dietary supplements provided an opportunity to not only reduce livestock emissions but help the animals grow faster.
“It’s so exciting.
“Apart from being a regional employer, we’re pioneering the development of this new industry in Australia and we’re also partnering with the livestock sector to decarbonise their industry.”
The potential market for asparagopsis is huge.
There are more than 24 million cattle in Australia, which makes up just 3 per cent of the global herd, while there are almost 70 million sheep.
Mr Elsom said there was intense interest in the seaweed additive from the meat and dairy industries but he cautioned that the road to a commercial product was long.
Under expansion plans, Sea Forest wants to establish an 1,800ha lease yielding up to 7,000 tonnes of asparagopsis a year.
This, Mr Elsom said, would be enough to feed “over 100,000 head of cattle” annually.
But he said meeting demand from the broader market would take time and significant investment in research and development.
“While there are 24 million cows in Australia, we’re focused on that 1.5 million in feedlots and one million dairy cattle because these are the ones we can have access to,” he said.
“But it’s a balancing act between having industry engagement … and scaling up accordingly.”
Seaweed buyers queueing up
Amid the baking heat of the Pilbara, Pardo Beef Corporation chairman Bruce Cheung said he and the board were investigating the feasibility of turning the operation carbon neutral.
Pardoo produces high-end Wagyu beef cows using a system of centre-pivot irrigation to provide feed.
As a first step, Mr Cheung said the company needed to properly understand and account for its carbon output.
Once this was done, he said the next step was to identify the ways in which Pardoo could pare back or even eliminate its emissions.
And part of the answer, Mr Cheung said, could lie in adding asparagopsis to the diets of Pardoo’s cows.
“That [asparagopsis] would be a major part of that.”
In the horticulture industry, companies eyeing disruption are taking to the sky.
Around the world, but especially in densely populated areas, vertical farms are springing up in a bid to produce more eco-friendly fruit and vegetables.
The farms allow crops to be grown on top of, rather than next to each other as happens in a field.
Therefore, vertical farms require a fraction of the land needed for conventional farming.
Michael Spencer, the chief commercial officer of Burleigh Heads-based operator Stacked Farm, said vertical farming offered several advantages over traditional forms of horticulture.
Apart from their economy with space, Mr Spencer said vertical farms used about 95 per cent less water than conventional ones, required few if any inputs such as herbicides or fertilisers, and could grow products year-round and according to demand.
What’s more, he said they could be built in the middle of cities, meaning they were often much closer to their markets.
“Having our farms as close as possible to our end user, whether it’s a distribution centre or highly inhabited areas … the travel time, the food miles and the carbon output required to deliver that is eliminated.”
While Mr Spencer acknowledged vertical farming was still limited to competitively growing certain types of produce, such as leafy greens and berries, he argued this would change as the industry evolved.
Another challenge, he said, was the question of energy.
According to Mr Spencer, electricity was one of the biggest inputs in vertical farming and this meant the industry had to find renewable — and affordable — sources of energy if it wanted to be seen as green.
To that end, he said Stacked Farm was looking to use biogas — or methane — from a nearby landfill to power its needs, among other measures.
“Realistically, to be able to operate at scale … you’ve got to have a very good handle on that.”
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